While shock jock humor is the brand that made Howard Stern famous, an interview on Magic Johnson’s 1998 late-night talk show “The Magic Hour” pushed the limits even for him, creating one of the most uncomfortable moments in late-night TV history.
In a new interview with Variety, Johnson looked back on his hosting stint prior to the April 22 release of “They Call Me Magic,” an Apple TV Plus docuseries that covers his life and career — including his brief chapter in the late-night seat. And though “The Magic Hour” was an overall flop, hated by critics and canceled after three short months, it’s Stern’s appearance on the program that still gets talked about today as a blatant example of how entertainers could get away with making racist comments before things changed in our culture.
“So many times, I wanted to say something and hit him at the same time — on air,” Johnson tells Variety, looking back at the interview. Johnson hasn’t spoken to Stern since then.
For those unfamiliar with the episode, here’s a primer: After “The Magic Hour” premiered, Stern started attacking the program on his massively popular radio show, criticizing Johnson and mocking his comedic timing and interviewing skills. In an effort to drum up ratings for “The Magic Hour,” the producers of the show decided to invite Stern on as a guest.
“Let’s get right to it,” Johnson said in the interview after Stern came out on stage. “Why have you been talking about me so much, man?”
“The thing you need to work on, in my estimation, is that you’ve gotta stop trying to talk like the white man,” Stern answered. “Everybody’s anti-Ebonics. I say, let it fly! What you need to do, ‘my brotha,’ is to really get down with it. You talk Ebonics all you want.”
But Stern was only getting warmed up. “Listen, you’re a Black man. I grew up in a Black neighborhood,” Stern added. “I’m Blacker than you are, trust me. I’m the Blackest Black man you’ll ever meet. And I’m telling you right now, when I lived in Roosevelt, Long Island, which is a Black ghetto, everybody talked like this,” he said, before doing an impression of how he thought Black people spoke. “I was a big marble mouth, but it was fascinating, because I was one of the people. Why does everybody have to understand every word you say? Who cares what you got to say? No difference what you say.”
Stern eventually changed the subject to Johnson’s HIV status, which he’d disclosed at a 1991 press conference when he retired from the NBA.
“You had the life I wanted,” Stern said later in the interview, prodding Johnson about his sexual history before his diagnosis. “These were white chicks? Black chicks? What do we got? What did you prefer? You would have sex with everybody? At least you had fun getting AIDS.”
Johnson calmly corrected Stern, saying that he had HIV, not AIDS, and that “nobody has fun” contracting it.
“Believe me, brother, you did. It sounds like fun to me,” Stern replied.
The show’s dismal ratings were the reason for Stern’s appearance in the first place. Hoping to draw in more viewers, producers of “The Magic Hour” booked Stern, presenting the interview as an opportunity for Johnson to confront him — though Johnson now admits the interview happened against his will.
“I was mad when they booked him,” Johnson says. “But there’s nothing you can do. When people look for ratings, this is what happens.”
Johnson continued: “It is what it is. I learned a lot from that. I’ve never put myself — or HIV and AIDS, or my race — in that position again, ever again.”
Johnson wasn’t Stern’s only target during his appearance on “The Magic Hour.” Stern also joked about losing games of basketball against “midgets.” And several times throughout the interview, he turned to Sheila E., the bandleader of the show, to comment on her breasts. “Sheila, you take off your top. Go kiss another girl in the band. Give us some lesbianism,” he said at one point.
A representative for Stern did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.